Joan Osborne has been covering Bob Dylan for her entire career, ever since she recorded the Oh Mercy deep cut "Man in the Long Black Coat" for her multi-platinum 1995 debut, Relish. In the two decades since, the Nobel Prize–winning songwriter has always remained a source for inspiration for Osborne, who regularly performs Dylan's material onstage and once again included a rendition of one of his songs – 1997's "Make You Feel My Love" – on 2000's Righteous Love.
But it wasn't until last year, when Osborne decided to perform an entire show's worth of Dylan material during her residency at New York's Cafe Carlyle, that the singer realized that her lifelong fascination with the Minnesota singer's work could inspire an entire record. Out September 1st, Songs of Bob Dylan – Osborne's first album in three years – is a collection of Dylan-penned tunes that offers fresh arrangements of well-worn classics like "Highway 61 Revisited" and "Tangled Up in Blue" while reanimating lesser-known, more recent songs like "Tryin' to Get to Heaven" and "High Water (For Charley Patton").
"I don't think it's hyperbole to talk about Dylan as an artist who's on the same level as Pablo Picasso or William Shakespeare," Osborne tells Rolling Stone. "He's really an epic poet of America, and any singer can find such an incredible wealth and richness in his material, not just me."
We recently spoke with Osborne about her new album, what she's learned from Bob Dylan, and how she put her own feminist spin on "Tangled Up in Blue," which is premiering below.
"Tangled Up in Blue" is such an iconic Dylan tune. How did you go about approaching that song?
It wasn't until later in the process that I started to think about doing "Tangled Up in Blue," during rehearsals for the residency we were doing at Cafe Carlyle. We started off with just the drums and began experimenting with more of a soul rhythm. We ended up listening to Dusty Springfield's Dusty in Memphis, some of the classic Memphis recordings of that time, to see if we could flavor the Dylan song with some of that stuff. It's a very lengthy song, and that's why people tend to do it at this rapid-fire pace, to get this epic story out there, but I wanted something that would put a different spin on it. I wanted to give it a more feminist spin, a different kind of energy.
The slower tempo in your rendition really changes the emotional core of the song.
If you listen to the lyrics, Dylan was using this really interesting technique of looking at a story from different viewpoints. It seems like the narrator is reaching back into his memory, and these are all things that happens in the past, except for that final verse when he sings, "I'm going back to find this person again." There was a quality that the soul rhythm gave to the story of this being a fond reminiscence. There's a bit of tenderness, too, which was something I felt was interesting to bring out. In particular, the verse where he sings, "She lit a burner on a stove and offered me a pipe." That's such an intimate moment in the story, and I felt like the soul groove gave me a chance to emphasize that intimacy and bring down the volume and tell the story in this very tender way.
What do you feel like this project has taught you – either about your own music, or Dylan's?
When you work with material that is of this quality and is this brilliant, it re-trains your mind to think about your own writing in a particular way. Dylan often uses imagery from the Bible and merges it with images from our modern world of telephones and televisions and trains and cars. As a singer, it's the range of the material that he writes. He writes songs that have an edge of cruelty about them or songs that might be political diatribes, and he also writes incredibly tender, poignant love songs, and he writes songs that have this surreal humor about them. There are just so many kinds of songs, and as a singer it's great to be able to test yourself to see what exactly you can do with all these different types of songs.
Going into the project, were there any songs you knew you didn't want to touch?
There were some songs, like "Blowin' in the Wind," that I felt like other people had done amazing covers of before. I couldn't see a way that I could add to that. There were also a couple songs that we tried to do where we couldn't really find unique arrangements. We did "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." I still enjoy singing that song and we do it live sometimes, but I didn't feel like we were able to come up with any way to record it that would justify putting it on the record and saying, "OK, here's a new way into this song." So that was really kind of the criteria. It was: Is there something left to say about this song that hasn't already been said? And if the answer was yes, then we pursued it. And if the answer was no, and we really thought that a song had been well-served by other versions, then we left it alone.
Did you change any lyrics around?
We didn't change any lyrics, but I did edit a couple of the songs. On the song "Trying to Get to Heaven," we ended up not leaving the last verse in. It felt like the energy kind of drained out in the end and I wanted something a little more precise, but we did that very carefully. We did that very sparingly, and most of the time we just kept things as they were. Obviously, if someone has just won the Nobel Prize in Literature because of their lyrics, you don't want to go in there and start poking around with stuff.